Exclusive: Andras Schiff attacks Steinway, boycotts festival

We have received the following angry email from the manager of the annual Schubertiade at Schwarzenberg:

Dear

A few days after the conclusion of the June Schubertiade, I received an email message from Sir András Schiff, which he opened by thanking me for the “wonderful time in Schwarzenberg” and praising the “splendid festival”. Then he criticised the choice of artists and programmes, and complained about the fact that, in June 2020, another pianist will be playing the programme that he originally intended to perform.

In my reply, I asked Sir András Schiff to take some additional information into account in his reasonings. (His statements led to the conclusion that he had only superficially read our programmes.) Furthermore, I pointed out to him that we had received his 2020 programme very late and that the works in question had been promised to a different pianist six months earlier. Finally, I mentioned that his frequent negative remarks on Steinway pianos during the public master class had been quoted in a Dutch critic’s review, and that the audience had not only repeatedly voiced critical comments regarding the Bösendorfer he played in his concerts, but also speculated about the motives for his opinion on Steinway. I added that, for us, his utterances were all but agreeable since our Steinway grand enjoyed daily praise and high esteem from all other pianists.

Sir András Schiff reacted by announcing that he would abstain from all future appearances at the Schubertiade, questioning the judging competence of the Schubertiade audience and briefing against a whole group of artists who regularly perform at our festival.

We would like to thank Elisabeth Leonskaja, who will replace Sir András Schiff in the chamber concert with the Cuarteto Casals on June 26, and Lucas and Arthur Jussen, who made their impressive Schubertiade debut just a few weeks ago and will play the piano matinee on June 28.

With kind regards

Gerd Nachbauer
(Managing Director of the Schubertiade GmbH)
Sehr geehrte

wenige Tage nach dem Abschluß der Juni-Schubertiade-Periode erhielt ich von Sir András Schiff eine Mail-Nachricht, die er mit seinem „Dank für die wunderschöne Zeit in Schwarzenberg“ und einem Lob für das „prachtvolle Festival“ einleitete. Dann übte er u.a. Kritik an der Künstler- und Programmauswahl und beschwerte sich darüber, daß ein anderer Pianist im Juni 2020 jenes Programm spielen wird, das eigentlich er spielen wollte.

In meiner Antwort bat ich Sir András Schiff, bei seinen Überlegungen einige Zusatzinformationen zu berücksichtigen. (Aus seinen Anmerkungen war zu schließen, daß er unsere Programme anscheinend nur oberflächlich gelesen hatte.) Weiters machte ich ihn darauf aufmerksam, daß wir sein Programm für den Juni 2020 erst sehr spät erhalten haben und dieses bereits sechs Monate zuvor einem anderen Pianisten zugesagt worden war. Abschließend erwähnte ich, daß seine wiederholten negativen Äußerungen über Steinway-Klaviere während des Meisterkurses von einem niederländischen Kritiker wörtlich zitiert worden waren und daß es im Publikum zahlreiche kritische Anmerkungen zu dem von ihm verwendeten Bösendorfer-Flügel und Vermutungen über die Hintergründe seiner Meinung über Steinway-Flügel gab. Für uns seien seine Bemerkungen nicht gerade angenehm, da unser Steinway-Flügel von allen anderen Pianisten täglich gelobt und sehr geschätzt wird.

Sir András Schiff reagierte mit der Ankündigung, daß er auf alle zukünftigen Auftritte bei der Schubertiade verzichte, stellte die Beurteilungskompetenz des Schubertiade-Publikums in Frage und äußerte sich abschließend noch sehr negativ über eine ganze Gruppe von bei uns regelmäßig auftretenden Künstlern.

Dankenswerterweise wird Elisabeth Leonskaja beim Konzert des Cuarteto Casals am 26. Juni 2020 das geplante Programm übernehmen und Lucas und Arthur Jussen, die vor wenigen Wochen ihr beeindruckendes Schubertiade-Debüt feiern konnten, werden die Klaviermatinee am 28. Juni 2020 gestalten.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen

Gerd Nachbauer
(Geschäftsführer der Schubertiade GmbH)

 

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  • Greg Bottini says:

    I heard a recital at the convention of The American Liszt Society at which the sustaining pedal on a Steinway “B” stopped functioning, drooped to the floor, and stayed there.
    There is the occasional “lemon” even from the greatest makers.

  • Bruce says:

    “…questioning the judging competence of the Schubertiade audience…”

    Oh dear. Not a good idea to criticize the taste or intelligence of your audience. They might decide that you don’t want them to come to your concerts.

  • Tausendsassa says:

    (THIS IS A CORRECTED VERSION OF THE COMMENT I SENT EARLIER!)

    I attended Schiff’s master classes at the Schubertiade in June and heard first hand his negative comments on Steinway. These consisted both of attacks on the brand in general and specific criticisms of the particular concert grand onstage. To be sure, his remarks were mostly humorous but some of them did seem rather gratuitous, almost as if he bore a grudge against Steinway and was going out of his way to make jokes at their expense. Not exactly guaranteed to win him the affections of Steinway’s PR folks, not to mention the Schubertiade’s management.

    By the way, Schiff brought along his personal mahogany Bosendorfer 280 VC for his own concerts. While certainly splendid to behold (how often do you see a brown concert grand onstage?) its tone was not especially warm or colorful to my ears; the mellow and sweet-sounding Steinway he’d been bashing all week certainly did not suffer by comparison.

    As for the programme he’d intended to play next year but was told he couldn’t because it had already been promised to another pianist, it consisted of the last three Beethoven sonatas. They will instead be played by Igor Levit on June 22.

    • The View from America says:

      With the surfeit of great piano music from that era, surely Sir Schiff could have come up with alternative repertoire to present — if had had wanted to do so.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    I listened to Schiff’s recording of the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, (and Barenboim’s) and had nothing but complaints about both of them for their lack of sensitivity, poor tempo choices, superficial readings…

  • Been Here Before says:

    He is criticizing Steinway, but then plays recitals on a historical instrument that doesn’t meet minimal standards for a public performance (going out of tune after twenty minutes or so, one can hear hammers hitting the strings, etc.).

    I personally strongly disliked his Schubert recital at the Wigmore Hall last fall and found it tedious and dry. Hence, in my opinion, no big loss for the festival – why not give a chance to somebody with fresher ideas and livelier execution?

  • RobK says:

    More self-regarding preciousness from Sir Andras – a shame, he’s a fine musician, but with an increasingly tiresome ego.

  • christopher storey says:

    Perhaps the engagement of Levit and the Jussen brothers tells one rather a lot about future standards at the Schubertiade . Schiff, on the other hand , is still unquestionably in the front rank of today’s pianists

  • Attending a Schiff concerts is either an ordeal or a penance (or both). The ‘pleasure’ factor? Forget it – you are there to be lectured into submission and woe betide any audience member who dares avert their gaze from the straight and narrow, sneezes, nudges his neighbour, gazes at the programme note or gives the slightest impression that the ‘message’ has not been fully received. His Birmingham recitals were prefaced by a herald who appeared on stage to warn the audience against all of the above. Truly terrifying. If you doubt my words just read the introduction to Professor Kenneth Hamilton’s seminal book, ‘After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance’ where you will find a comprehensive put down of Sir Andras’s performing conceits – unnamed of course but self-evident. He is an interesting musician and his early forays into the great piano repertoire were indeed impressive. More lately he has become simply boring. Witness the pointless traversal of both books of Bach’s 48 during the London Proms. An ordeal. As to pianos – why does he fuss so much? Just play the damn things without complaint as most truly great pianists do.

    • Pacer1 says:

      “Play the damn things without complaint…..great pianists? Seems to me that Glenn Gould had plenty of complaints about (American) Steinways until he found CD 318.

      I learned from the late great piano technician Thomas Hathaway (Arrau called him a “genius”) that before a recital by Alfred Brendel in Canada, he spent two days together with Brendel preparing the house Steinway to his liking.

      There are pianos and there are pianos, be they Hamburg or American Steinway, Bösendorfer, or Fabbrini-Steinway. Pianists are lucky if before a performance they are offered a choice. Angela Hewitt travels with her own Fazzioli whenever possible.

      • Steven van Staden says:

        Cellists are complaining about their troubles with airlines that make it difficult to accommodate their instrument. We poor pianists, on the other hand, are expected to play whatever is on the stage, or to choose an alternative and pay transport costs. Only a few venues offer a choice. I used to take my own S&S model D with me in my own country but the costs were astronomical. Steinways are lately sounding ‘clangy’ (Brendel); I find them metallic and buzzy at forte and above. I can synpathise with Schiff complaining about Steinways, but to my ear Bosendorfers sound even more clangy and metallic at forte and above. Maybe this is the sound of our time. Perhaps audiences are unaware of it, but it’s certainly unpleasant for the performer who tries to give his best and is hearing the piano close up.

        Bluthner seems to be making mellower-tuned pianos. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to play a new Bechstein concert grand. As for the difference between Hamburg and NY Steinways, the latter are suffering from a stigma that I believe is unfair. I have played (and own) magnificent NY model Ds. I find them much more characterful. Horowitz’es 1960’s Steinway was exceptional. As long as the hammers were not too hard, it never buzzed and clanged. His later piano was not so special. Gould also had his precious piano, and these pianists produced very special playing on these instruments. Michelangeli took his own meticulously regulated and voiced model D (sometimes two of them) with him.

        I remember a critic complaining about Radu Lupu having used an older Steinway. The critic showed his ignorance by saying that no one hears the difference. He also complained that the piano went out of tune due to its age,whereas it’s far more likely, coming from a different environment, it did so due to a change of humidity in the hall.

      • CD318 a very dodgy piano judging by the results – though to be fair to the long suffering technicians Gould was notorious in his demands for the hammers to be so close to the string as to make proper regulation near impossible (that infamous ‘bubble’ in the middle of the piano).

        • Steven van Staden says:

          I agree about Gould’s regulation demands and the problems they caused initially – especially in his recording of the Bach Two & Three Part Inventions – but they eventually much-reduced the ‘blubbering’, and the action so set up, like Horowitz’s 1960’s piano which I have played (not the later one paraded as ‘the Horowitz piano’ for which understandably he had not the same fondness) made it possible to attain a clarity, precision and responsiveness not attainable on the standard spec. regulation. One downside on Gould’s 1940s NY S&S D set-up was that it was hard work to get a big sound, but that did not matter very much for recordings. There was no such problem achieving a pwerful sound on that very special Horowitz piano on which most of his CBS recordings and concerts from the 60’s up to about 1984 were made (though the RCA recordings lost a great deal of the true sound).

      • Fazioli – a curious beast of an instrument. Never found one I liked. Richter settled on Yamahas for the last 25 years or so of his life but he was largely indifferent to pianos..he could transcend them all as a great pianist should.

        • WR says:

          Only a poor craftsman blames his tools-

          • Ebbe S. Nielsen, pianist says:

            Only a fine pianist and stylistic well prepared musician seeks perfection – It’s deserves respect and Sir Andras Schiff would never question his audience in a rude manner, but try to understand things from his point of wiew – thats all it takes

    • spring prince says:

      really, an ordeal? i was privileged to attend the WTC concerts, really cannot see any reasoning here beyond personal dislike unrelated to the music.

    • spring prince says:

      “pointless traversal hate” i’d rather say is what i see in this comment. We are fortunate to still have today recitals like Schiff’s, that are not Galas of Public Relations made up stardoms.

    • SVM says:

      Sed contra: The “ordeal” is trying to enjoy a concert (possibly having travelled a long way to get there) when some members of the audience fail to show proper consideration for the rest of the audience, the performer(s), and the music. I find it “Truly terrifying” that most performers, ushers, and concert-hall managements adopt a /laissez-faire/ attitude, and are utterly ineffective in preventing disruptive behaviour from these inconsiderate audience members. In recent years, I have confined my concert-going almost entirely to the Wigmore Hall (although I will be making an exception to hear two concerts featuring Schiff as soloist at the Barbican in late-November), since the Wigmore is the only venue where a concert has a decent chance of *not* becoming an “ordeal” due to inconsiderate audience-members.

      So, I would urge all artists to insist militantly upon proper audience etiquette. If some listeners are offended by such insistence, then good riddance to them!

  • Andy says:

    A fine pianist, but notoriously grumpy. I saw him at Wigmore hall in October, which was hard work anyway because he played on a Fortepiano, but after the very last note of the concert (the music had definitely finished, but his hands were still hovering over the keyboard) an elderly gentleman coughed, and Schiff was raging, tutting, shaking his head and pointing during all of his curtain calls.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    Schiff is pompous and grumpy even for a Hungarian, speaking as one myself.

    • Furzwängler says:

      Was György Cziffra, another Hungarian (and IMHO a much greater pianist than either Schiff or Levitt) also a pompous and grumpy so-and so? The few times I met him after some of his recitals he was charming and friendly.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    If it’s not a Bechstein, it’s not a real piano. I applaud his stance.

  • Michel says:

    Not a great loss for the Schubertiade. Schiff is a fine musician but there are plenty of equally fine pianists who can replace him and who are less grumpy and self-regarding.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    I have never heard of Schubertiade, which is perhaps my own fault. I have always maintained tremendous respect for my colleagues and for the tenacity to have a career such as Sir Andras. Bravo to him, truly. But, my way of thinking has evolved to this: there are so many places to perform in the world, so many pianos to play in the world. We find instruments that vary tremendously. I was playing Brahms 2nd concerto a long time ago, and, in the beginning of the second movement, the middle E-flat ebony popped off! I should have stopped, but did not – and it was treacherous to continue without that key top where it should have been. In another situation, the dampers were not returning to their rightful positions, but thanks to a friend, who hovered over the piano, he pushed down as many dampers as possible to stop the sound – which was not easy during Chopin’s Scherzo no. 3! With due respect to every artist, we all go through situations, and yes, artists and rep are subject to change, which is almost always in many contracts. I’m no saint, but I know that, even with everything I have done in music, for music and whatever (and to Kolb Slaw, I recorded many of those Mendelssohn gems in the last recording – they are heavenly pieces – I am so happy you mentioned them), all that is remembered of us is our relationships with our audiences, presenters, our students carrying on traditions of the past, and our lasting recordings. I try not to burn bridges because nobody remembers a misfortune or less-than-par piano, or a change in artists. The next day, it is forgotten. Like I said, I’m no saint, but I have come to the realization that if I died tomorrow, the world will continue and maybe, a recording or two of mine will be enjoyed. It’s not worth the trouble otherwise. I have stories of bringing ideas of repertoire to presenters, only to find the idea used and given to another artist. People can do weird things, so I try to stay away from people like that. It’s all about perspective and keeping your eye on the prize – sustaining a career and faithful audience.

    • Andy says:

      You are a true gentleman Jeffrey. Don’t ever change!

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        You’re kind, thank you. You know, it reminds me of something I once heard the late night show host, Johnny Carson, say: “It takes the same amount of time to be kind and courteous, so why be nasty?” I always remind my own children even in their 20s. “I don’t care what you do or how successful you become. It’s the person who you are that will be remembered more than anything else.”

    • HugoPreuss says:

      Okay, I have to admit: I am more than a bit surprized that there are professional musicians, let alone pianists, who have never heard of the Schubertiade Hohenems. This is not exactly a tiny little fringe festival. Apparently, Schubert is not Mr. Biegel’s favorite composer (judging by his repertoire according to his website), but still…

  • In making such remarks Schiff does neither himself nor Bösendorfer any favours whatsoever – and how could the latter answer back?

  • My ha’pence worth: the new Bösendorfers (those manufactured under Yamaha’s ownership) are some of the finest pianos I’ve ever encountered. Bösendorfer’s fortunes have been mixed over the decades and under different ownerships, the low point being reached when owned by Kimball International. Steinways vary in quality (as do all pianos) – some great, some indifferent. I’m interested in exploring the use of the Shigeru Kawai concert grand for a major piano competition of which I’m chairman. Anyone have any thoughts on them?

    • Pipe09 says:

      I’m not a big fan of Kawai, but a few months ago tried the SK3 and SK6 on a store and I was really surprised about the fast response and weight of the action keys, being super comfortable (not to heavy/light) and easy to express on the extremes of the dynamic range.

      When we are talking about the great brands (Fazioli, Bosendorfer, Steinway, Bluthner, Bechstein, etc.) it’s more a personal choice in taste rather than x better than y; but without doubt we are used to listening the Steinway D because the versatility of the sound.

      Personally I love the Bosendorfer 280 VC. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=6D2Bf9G9t8Y

  • batonbaton says:

    Mr Schi(t)ff, as I call him, is not, never has been and never will be a great pianist – he should play whatever semi-maintained instrument he is given, take the money (undoubtedly more than he deserves) and shut up. Poor Schubert must be turning in his grave every time that man plays a note, seriously.

    • Francis Romano says:

      Bravo! He has a well known and deserved reputation as a prima donna who treats the “little people” with disdain and arrogance. In addition he is a pianist with a very limited dynamic range goes from MP to MF and anything above F is ugly. I must admit his ornaments are very interesting in Bach, heard him in NYC in 2000 the Bach Year. Also a prodigious memory.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Long links with opinions varying all over the map are precisely why I steer clear of the classical piano world (give me a really good jazz pianist any day). First off, why is everybody typing “Ship”? Is that an inside joke, or is it simply that everyone wants to get their opinions out there so quickly, that this whole thing has turned into a case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’?

    Second, I would never pretend to be an expert on pianos, modern or historic. But I do get tired of big, modern pianos applied like a trowel to the entire piano repertoire, stretching from Scarlatti to Boulez. Historic instruments can be troublesome in live performances, not to mention projection issues when big audiences are involved. But rather like the troublesome lute, they work quite well in a controlled recording environment. I like hearing these works on an instrument that’s closer to what the composer him/herself was working with. It furthers my understanding of why they wrote what they wrote. In short, I like my own thought processes to be more composer-centric and less performer-centric. I realize that gets complicated as well, due to the efforts of editors and the various editions that are involved, etc.

  • LondonPianist says:

    Not at all surprised. Good riddance.

  • spring prince says:

    It is all too obvious how a festival manager thought it personally profitable to shamefully transform a private debate into a public brawl, just so he could gain a moment of notoriety in front of a unique world renowned artist. Poor style.

    The preference of different pianos for various repertoires is a superior feature of artistry and connoisseurship, not a nuisance as some have commented, nor an insult to the management. Evidently a finesse, completely in contrast to our times, with many pianists competing who can play just faster and bang even louder. Perlman for example mentions how he prefered alternating between his Guarneri or Stradivari violin in his Bach recordings. No attacks there.

    We should be grateful for Schiff’s admirable recitals of colossal programs played on two different pianos, whether it is the Six Bach partitas in one (!) concert or the last and before last sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert on different pianos, Brahms on Bluthner, Diabelli on both fortepiano and piano etc.

    Naturally enough, a refined taste might also lead one to disfavour certain features, in this case of certain Steinways apparently, and Schiff surely has the stature to discern these properties, and the right to express it, even when contradicting a myth.

    Upon reading some of the comments, one wishes to try and picture an imaginary masterclass concentrated on various pianos differences, Bosendorfer, Steinway, Bechstein or Bluthner all on one stage.

    “Replacing” Schiff’s Schubert with the darling fair-haired cuties Jussen brothers would have been a joke, were it not sadly in tune with contemporary trends, where extra musical traits dominate over true musicality: recent Deutsche Grammophon releases demonstrate how the cover seems equally, if not more important than the cd itself… (covers imitating pop society with sex appeal of semi naked stars, a clarinet becomes a phalic symbol, Vivaldi music is like a phon to the blowing Loreal hair, pathetic gestures etc. Of course, some great artists of the past were incredibly handsome, like Franco Corelli, Schwarzkopf, Gould, Kraus, Ferrier, AB Michelangeli, but this surely was not a prominent component of their fame like what seems to be happening today).

    • esfir ross says:

      Jussen brother gave the finest rendition of Schubert Fantasia in F. They’re amazing good musician for young age. AS’s my least favored pianist, but his protest not having cheap musician as Igor Levitt to play in Schubert festival

    • SVM says:

      Hear hear! Based on the description of the correspondence in this article, it sounds like Gerd Nachbauer is unable to take criticism. Such an attitude suggests he is unfit to be managing a festival.

      As for the whole business of programmes, I wish festival managers would not be so allergic to the existence of any overlap/repetition in the compositions performed. Although, as I have commented elsewhere, I think there is too much repetition of a very small canon of repertoire in classical music performance generally, I must say that I find it really interesting to hear two different artists/ensembles performing the same work(s) in the same venue, so why are promoters determined to prevent this happening?

  • Walter Winterfeldt says:

    Sorry to hear that Sir Andras had a bad day and has decided to take leave of a great music festival where he’s been much loved and admired for 30 or more years. Perhaps everyone will reconsider their decisions. I heard him there in 1995 playing two wonderful recitals with tenor Peter Schreier, and playing Schubert 4 hands with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau ! I have the tape of this; it may be the only one surviving. Schiff has a brilliant mind, even if I don’t always agree with his performances of the Romantic era.

  • muslit says:

    Schiff has a good memory. That’s about all I can say for him.

    • David R. Moran says:

      jeez, everyone does these days

      I just reviewed a half-dozen piano recitals at an august festival in boston, whiz youngsters almost every one, and most of them played long packed recitals note-perfectly, and all, of course, from memory

  • muslit says:

    Schiff is overrated. I heard him do all of the Preludes and Fugues Bks 1 & 2 of Bach recently at the Cervantino Festival. I was bored out of my mind.

    • DCT says:

      Myself on the other hand, can hardly listen nowadays to any of my other 30 or so recordings of the WTC (Richter aside) once I was enlightened with Schiff conception of playing Bach.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ”“…questioning the judging competence of the Schubertiade audience…”

    I had always thought he was more tactful that that.

  • DCT says:

    The only person who should be severely scolded here is that festival director. A maestro of Schiff’s caliber is not allowed to express himself regarding what he considers tonal limits of a Steinway? He is doing the public a favour in debunking a myth. Even if someone doesn’t agree , bravo for his courage. Letting Private correspondence published should be sued. As some comments have mentioned, it is all too apparent that Schubertiade will becoming a circus of young sexy “musicians” with the justification to draw more public. Disgusting.

    • Edgar Self says:

      Kolb Slaw has trouble finding Mendelssohn “Songs Without Words” to enjoy on records. So do I, Unconvinced by Barenboim, Lydia Rev, and others, I went back to Jesus Maria Sanroma, Alfred Cortot, and Walter Gieseking. Now I am happy.

      About Kawai pianos, the Franco-Turkish pianist Huseyin Sermet’s Liszt sonata for Naive-Harmonia Mundi is one of the most beautiful piano records. He plays a Kawai, maybe the Hawaii Kawai from the Honolulu Hilton. That high-treble pedal effect near the end is a stunner, and held for all it’s worth, which is a lot.

      Richter’s WTC disappoints — even Edwin Fischer’s does. Ste. Wanda Landowska remains the ultimate essence.

  • Norbert M says:

    Really sad to see this unfold. In his film about Schubert (filmed in 1997 I believe), Sir András Schiff explains his view on why he deliberately plays Schubert on a Bösendorfer. He also points out that the Steinway is also a magnificent instrument. See https://youtu.be/G4R-qf6E7XI?t=812 starting at 13:32.

  • David R. Moran says:

    Huh. He can always be disqualified, or disinvited, based on chronic rhythmic weakness and flabbiness alone.

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